Crono Maniac's Top 10 Games of 2013
by Crono Maniac

2013 was a wonderful year for video games, particularly for people like me who tend to prefer smaller, more experimental works. I even made a few games myself, all of which I'm extremely proud of and hope to improve upon in the future. There were a couple dozen games this year I loved; these are the ten I loved the most.

10. Super Xalaxer

There were a number of arcade-style action games I considered for the number ten spot on this list. Race the Sun is an endless obstacle avoidance game with sharp controls and incredible style. Ridiculous Fishing blends several different styles of gameplay into a seamless, cohesive package. They're both wonderful video games, and I've sunk hours in each of them.

But in the end I went with Super Xalaxer. It has a simple premise: You have two ships, one controlled with the mouse, one with the keyboard. Waves of enemies descend from the top of the screen. If you let enough of them slip by in a short enough span of time, you die and begin the stage over again. (You have infinite continues.) Later on, a couple of other enemy types are introduced, most notably one that takes more shots to kill and fires aimed shots at your ships. Sometimes your ships are split onto two different halves of the screen, sometimes they're both free to roam the whole play area.

What put it on the list is that it's bar-none the most satisfying challenge I experienced in a game this year. What makes it work is its sense of progression. In the beginning, surviving is fairly easy. For a good while it's possible to hold back the enemies just by moving both of your ships back and forth across the screen. But as it progresses, the pace ramps up, and a very small number of new ideas are introduced and developed on. By the half-way point, it starts to get difficult. The climax, in which the player fights off a wave of enemies with one ship and a boss with the other, is downright exhilarating. And if you're up for it, there's a hard mode, and it's even more thrilling.

Another cool thing: because the game is so focused on twitch reflexes and extended endurance tests, it can't be defeated through memorization. It's the polar opposite approach to games like R-Type, which are more focused on variety and texture. Not that there's anything wrong with a memorization-oriented approach (it's how my own games work after all), but it's still a really cool quirk of Super Xalaxer's design.

In a year filled with tremendous advances in puzzle games, strategy games, and games that don't fit into neatly defined categories, Super Xalaxer is a triumph of pure arcade action. It's a game I can see myself running through many more times in the future.

9. The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is a sort of interactive essay on the relationship between the game designer and the player. It uses comedy to illustrate the absurd lengths designers will often go to to keep players on the One True Path, often ruining the story they're trying to tell in the first place. (Note: this is also the year of Call of Duty: Ghosts, a game that kills any player that dares to linger looking at scenery for more than a dozen seconds.) Interactive storytelling should be a dialogue between the player and the inner workings of the game. Instead, designers are ruining that potential in pursuit of more "cinematic" storytelling.

In The Stanley Parable, what would normally be a failure state that sends you back to a checkpoint is instead an equally valid path through the story. This is a much more interesting use of the capabilities of interactive storytelling, and tons of other games have used failure states to fascinating narrative ends. Imagine if you screwed up rescuing Lucca's mom in Chrono Trigger and it just booted you back to a checkpoint a minute earlier. Imagine how different Demon's Souls and Dark Souls would be if they treated death like a conventional video game. This is the sort of storytelling that The Stanley Parable celebrates − through example no less. I've made two games, Fugitive and Into the Vortex, that do unconventional things with failure states, and I can definitely say that The Stanley Parable influenced the way I think about storytelling in video games.

And it really is just hilarious. The writing is razor-sharp; it's the only game I've ever seen that manages to include a genuinely funny (and thematically appropriate!) Portal reference. The fact that it actually has something to say on top of that is icing on the cake. It's a shame that everyone seems to think talking about the game will somehow ruin it (it's not a game that can really be spoiled), because there's a lot of fascinating material in here that deserves to be talked about.

8. The Swapper

The Swapper is one of the most aesthetically perfect games I've ever played. Everything about the game's look just works, with the found objects and clay models working together with the unsettling score to create a genuinely eerie visual and aural experience. It really helps to elevate the game's unsettling subject material. There's a scene straight out of 2001, where your character is floating around in the vacuum of space as the earth eclipses the sun in the background. It's breathtaking.

But what really makes it work are the puzzles. If Super Xalaxer was the most satisfying action game I've played this year, The Swapper was the most fun I've had with a puzzle game. It takes the cloning gun, a brilliant puzzle mechanic to build a game around if there ever was one, and uses it in all sorts of clever ways. And it's challenging in a way that's both rewarding and extremely fair. At least one puzzle took me a couple of hours, and I'm so glad I stuck with it instead of looking it up online.

And unlike a lot of popular puzzle games, there's no real action element to it. I tried to show Braid and Portal to my girlfriend, but neither of those games are really accessible without years and years of experience with their respective genres. But The Swapper is pure puzzle-solving, and that's something anybody can enjoy. Of all the games on this list it's one of the first I'd play with somebody who isn't too familiar with video games.

It's a little cluttered structurally. In order to progress through each area you have to collect a certain number of energy orbs by solving puzzles. However, you don't need to solve all of the puzzles in each level before unlocking the next area. This would be a nice way to let players skip past puzzles that they just can't figure out, except that in order to finish the game you need to go back and finish every single one. If the game wants me to solve every puzzle, then just make me solve them from the beginning instead of making me run all around right before the climax.

That's just a nitpick though. As it stands, The Swapper is my favorite traditional puzzle game of the year, and an excellent gateway drug for people who don't know all that much about video games.

7. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

The appeal of Ni no Kuni is very easy to grasp for fans of traditional JRPGs. It's a game by Level-5, the people who put together the spectacular eighth and ninth Dragon Quest games. They've made a dozen wonderful RPGs, with smart game design and simple, powerful stories. That'd be enough on its own, but here's the real hook: all of the art and story is by Studio Ghibli, one of the best animation studios in the world, justly famous in the west for masterpieces like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Ni no Kuni is exactly what you'd expect from the two prestigious studios: a smartly written, brilliantly designed JRPG in the same tradition of Enix's Dragon Quest games.

A big part of the appeal is the battle system. It captures much of the exciting, kinetic appeal of Square's early forays with timing-oriented combat engines, and there's a genuine visceral thrill to making all of your party members defend at exactly the right moment during a tense boss fight. And unlike a lot of JRPGs with otherwise excellent combat engines (Grandia 2 comes to mind), it manages to keep a strong difficulty curve going all the way to the end.

The storyline stays in the background for the most part. The hook is that you're traveling into an alternate world in order to potentially bring your character's recently passed mother back to life. It's a very relateable premise, and the way the game turns it on its head during the climax is gutwrenching, thoughtful, and mature.

This game also holds a special place in my heart for getting my girlfriend into video games. After playing through Ni no Kuni together, we moved on to Chrono Trigger, then played Fez, Journey, Thomas was Alone, and a dozen other wonderful games. Now we're spending weekend mornings playing increpare games and having in-depth conversations about game design. She's even helped me while making my own games. And I have Ni no Kuni to thank for it.

6. Antichamber

Antichamber is an imaginary possibility space, an abstract world that could only exist in a video game. The laws of reality have no control over its plane of existence. The only rules that matter are the rules of Antichamber, and those are constantly changing, shifting, twisting, and turning. It's a puzzle game where ninety percent of the challenge is figuring out what the puzzle actually is.

The presentation is perfect. The sterile, white hallways give the game a minimalist look, and the occasional swaths of color are used to great effect. There's not even a title screen or a pause menu. There's no traditional narrative, although it does does have a striking climax and a gorgeous, ambiguous ending.

But what makes Antichamber work as a game is that there's actually always a consistent logic to each scene. It can feel hopelessly arbitrary, but if you fiddle around with each area long enough you can always figure out their internal rules. It's a kind of mindbending puzzle solving I haven't seen in any other game, and I found it to be incredibly satisfying.

Antichamber is a tremendous, involving, fascinating puzzle box, and some of the most fun I've had with a game this year. It's a game I've been waiting for for a very long time, and seeing it created with such loving attention to detail is sheer euphoria.

5. Problem Attic

Problem Attic is about the subconcious mind, particularly the parts of ourselves we'd like to forget. It is not a typical video game. It's ostensibly a puzzle-platformer, but its "puzzles" are basically incomprehensible and only solvable through trial and error or unexplainable leaps of intuition. The visuals are cluttered and geometric, and do more to obscure the rules of each scene then explain them. There are bits and pieces of weird, stilted prose littered about, but rather than contextualizing the abstract visuals (like in Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia), they only seem to make things more confusing.

Because Problem Attic communicates its story entirely through abstraction, the only way to latch onto what it's actually about is to engage with it on a symbolic level. An example: early on, the game introduces you to a floating cross-shaped object. When you collide with this object, the screen shakes violently and makes an unpleasant noise. This teaches the player in the language of video games that this object is an enemy, something to be feared and avoided. However, a few screens later the solution to a puzzle involves riding one of these crosses to the top of the screen, triggering the harsh shaking effect. The game teaches you to avoid an object but then forces you to engage with it in order to progress.

From a game design perspective, this makes no sense. It'd be like if you were playing Mario and the only way to get past Level 3-2 was to run into a Goomba and watch Mario's death sprite fall to the next level. (This actually sounds awesome.) But on a symbolic level, it's introducing us to the idea that we are often forced to rely on things that cause us pain, a theme it continues to develop on throughout the story. The game incorporates these cross symbols into a number of other differing scenarios, and eventually all of the little micro-scenes come together to form complex thematic statements about gender, abuse, and mental trauma.

This kind of subliminal, abstract storytelling is rare for a video game, but there have been several that have used it to great effect. Merritt Kopas's Lim, Yume Nikki, and La La Land are excellent examples. Now there is Problem Attic. These games abandon the confines of traditional narrative and instead use striking images and mechanics to share complex ideas on an unconcious level. That's kind of incredible.

Problem Attic is frustrating and long, and playing it made me feel scared, uncomfortable, and lonely. It's also a moving, deeply human piece of art. It is an important video game.

4. Hugpunx / Consensual Torture Simulator

Merritt Kopas is one my favorite game designers. My first game of hers was Lim, an abstract flash game with a moving central metaphor about violence. It's a powerful, subtle game, and it stuck with me enough to pay attention to her later work. She's been extremely prolific throughout 2013, and I played pretty much everything she put out. Of all them, two stuck out as being my favorites.

The first is HUGPUNX a remix of sorts of another tiny indie game called PUNKSNOTDEAD. In PUNKSNOTDEAD, you run around a single screen murdering as many people as possible while aggressive music plays and expletives are shot towards the screen. The intent is use violent imagery to channel the rebellious, counter-cultural spirit of punk music into a short video game.

However, if you haven't noticed, there are quite a few video games about running around and murdering people. Creating another one isn't exactly rebellious at all. Enter HUGPUNX. It shares PUNKSNOTDEAD's pink-on-black visual aesthetic and even has basically the same gameplay. But instead of murdering people, you hug them. And instead of aggressive music, it plays Hold me Tight by Scraps, a song seemingly designed to siphon as much joy as humanly possible into two and half minutes. The end result is essentially a music video of a game, designed solely to make you smile. I still run through it every now and then, usually whenever I'm in a bad mood.

The second is Consensual Torture Simulator. It's a Twine story about two women in a consensual BDSM relationship, from the point-of-view of the "top." A short introduction makes it clear from the outset that their relationship is completely positive and healthy. The meat of the game is the middle section, because its where the protagonist collaborates with her partner to reach their mutually agreed-upon goal: making her cry. Because it's from the top's point of view, you can hear how thoughtful and concerned she is throughout the whole experience. It's a violent video game where violence is painted as a positive, uniting force. And the ending, in which the two main characters huddle on a couch together drinking chamomile, might be the sweetest moment I've experienced in a game this year.

These are my favorites, but Merritt Kopas has made a ton of other great games this year, like Positive Space, Conversations with my Mother, and Moons and Waves. She's also written some excellent criticism, and she runs a website called Forest Ambassador that draws attention to small, accessible video games. She's one of most subversive, important people in this medium, so give her work a look.

3. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The only real problem with The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is that it doesn't really have its own identity. It's more of a Greatest Hits album then an original story; it takes some of the best aspects from A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, and even the original NES game and tries to meld them into a cohesive whole.

But here's the weird thing: it works. Let's face it − Zelda has been limping along for a decade. The only cohesive Zelda of the last two console generations was Phantom Hourglass, and aside from that the series has only gotten more patronizing and tedious with each entry. After Skyward Sword ended up being the worst mainline Zelda game to date, someone at Nintendo must have realized that things had gone sour at some point. A stripped-down return to form was exactly what the series needed.

Tutorializing fairy companion? Out. Obnoxious, hours-long introductory sequences? Out. Terrible interface design, cutscenes that read like fan fiction, bosses that require you to execute the exact same "puzzle" sequence three times in a row? Out, out, and out.

It even goes further and improves upon A Link to the Past in some ways. Instead of having seperate ammunition for bombs, arrows, and magic, everything is consolidated into a single, continuously refilling stamina meter, which surprisingly makes the combat and exploration a lot more fluid. It also ditches its item-gating form of progression in favor of a more open-world approach, kind of like the original Zelda. This freeform structure suits the template quite nicely, and it makes you wonder why Nintendo hasn't revisited it since 1986.

The story is surprisingly effective as well, and is a lot more fleshed out then the barebones (but potent!) narrative of its SNES predecessor. Its use of cutscenes is very sparse, and yet it still manages to establish a number of rounded, endearing characters. And it all pays off beautifully with a surprising, touching conclusion.

It is a little too easy. I elected early on not to use fairies or potions in order to make the combat a little more intense, so I had a very satisfying experience challenge-wise. It's at least unobtrusively easy. And you know what? Not everyone has spent their whole damned life playing these games, and they deserve a fun time too. It'd be better if Hard Mode was available from the start so people like me could enjoy themselves without self-imposed restrictions, but it's still a very sharply designed game, if not a particularly challenging one.

This is the first Zelda game in a very long time that works, and it works exceedingly well. There were so many moments in this game that put a huge smile on my face: the Ice Ruins dungeon, figuring out a particularly challenging Sand Rod puzzle in the desert, and of course, that lovely ending. It's probably the most fun I've had with a game this year, and that certainly counts for something.

2. 868-Hack

Michael Brough might be the best game designer in the world. In less than twelves months, he's released three bonafide masterpieces. The first was Vesper.5, a meditation on ritual in which the player can make only a single move each day. I've been playing it for six months, and I'm only just now approaching the ending. The second was Corrypt, a block-pushing puzzle game with a surprisingly poignant narrative and a mind-bending, subtle twist halfway in. And now, there is 868-Hack.

The tagline for Brough's latest work is "cyberspace roguelike," which is a succinct enough summary. Each playthrough is made up of eight different screens, and each screen is divided into a grid of six by six tiles. There are several different varieties of enemies standing between your avatar and each of the level exits, but there are also a number of programs you can collect to fight them off. Using programs requires two different types of resources, which can be gathered from otherwise empty tiles. There are also "points" in each screen that can be gathered, which do nothing on their own and summon enemies when they're collected.

This is all simple enough, but what really elevates 868-Hack over typical genre fare (including Brough's own Zaga-33), is the structure. Unlike most roguelikes, it's actually fairly easy to score a complete run of all eight levels, so the real goal is to get lots and lots of points. But collecting points puts you in greater danger, and if you die then you lose everything. So not only are you moving through the levels and trying to survive, but there's also this entire risk-reward metagame on top of that where you're trying to survive with the most points possible.

But it goes even deeper. In addition to the high score table that keeps track of who wins the most points in a single game, there's also the streak score table, which keeps track of how many points a player can score across multiple games in a row without dying. Imagine being faced with a risky choice when you're two or three games into a streak. The tension is incredible! I've seen high-scoring players on Twitter ruminating on their next moves for months.

868-Hack admittedly doesn't have the subtle poetics of Corrypt or the slow-burning profundity of Vesper.5. It is, however, a razor-sharp piece of game design and one of the smartest and most strategic members of its genre. It's certainly one of the best games of 2013.

1. Gone Home

Let's get this out of the way: I'm really sick of people flinging around semantic bullshit in an attempt to trivialize other people's art. When people argue that Gone Home or Mainichi or Lim or The Stanley Parable or anything slightly outside the norm isn't a game, they aren't doing it because they genuinely care about upholding the standards of English communication or whatever. They're doing it to silence people. They don't like Gone Home for whatever reason, so rather than actually engage with it on a critical level, they use "it's not a game" as shorthand for "I want to put this in a box far away where no one I know will ever acknowledge its existence." Not-so-coincidentally, the people who deal with these accusations the most are disproportionately women, gay, trans, or any combination thereof. So, not only are they trying to silence people's voices in the most backhanded way possible, they're also engaging in implicit bigotry.

It's really goddamned stupid. Here's an idea: if you don't like something, just say that you don't like it. Or better yet, explain why.

It's frustrating for two reasons: 1) Gone Home isn't the most radical or experimental work out there, and 2) asking whether or not Gone Home is a game is the most boring question you could possibly ask about it. Here's a more interesting question: what is it about Gone Home that makes it resonate with so many people?

I think I have an answer, but let's back up a bit. Gone Home was made by the Fullbright Company, a tiny studio that previously designed the acclaimed "Minerva's Den" DLC for BioShock 2, and the influence of that series's brand of storytelling is readily apparent in Gone Home. Both use their environments to imply details about the setting and the story without explicitly spelling them out. The obvious change is that Gone Home doesn't have any combat, but as important is the difference in scale. BioShock take place inside a gigantic, underwater objectivist dystopia. Gone Home is set inside an empty house. BioShock is about disturbed artists, megalomaniacal capitalists, and chemicals that grant you superhuman powers. Gone Home is about two girls who fall in love.

And there it is. Instead of trying to tell a gigantic epic, Gone Home's core story focuses on the relationship between two people. It's a tiny, personal story in a medium that seems to always to go for the grandiose. This isn't to say there's anything wrong with setting your story in apocalypse, but you have to ground yourself in characters in any setting, and most games just don't do that. Seeing a game do it as beautifully as Gone Home must have struck a chord with people.

It's an interesting contrast to another game that came out this year: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. That game is also ostensibly about a relationship between two people, and it couldn't be more different. Brothers definitely wants to be seen as important, as a sort of grand video game fairy tale. That wouldn't be a problem, except that in striving for emotional gravitas it goes for a cheap, unearned, tacky ending that doesn't actually mean anything and comes damn close to ruining the whole game.

Gone Home could have very easily gone for a manipulative, faux-tragic conclusion, but that would have cheapened the rest of the experience, like it does to Brothers. Gone Home never goes for the easy way out; it eschews melodrama for genuine optimism and humanity. I want to see more video games like Gone Home, with powerful, direct, challenging stories that can actually change people's lives.

You know, I was sixteen when I first started writing for this site. It's four years later, and I've grown up a good bit. And it makes me so damned happy that video games are willing to mature alongside me. I hope they keep growing up with me. I hope when I'm old and grey I love games just as much as I do now − I hope I love them even more.

Gone Home gives me that hope. For that, it's my game of the year.

So. What's next?

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